From turf roofs to tankless water heating systems, the wide and varied concepts circulating around the green housing space may appeal to those with wide enough pockets—but what about for the billions living in slum-like conditions? Is adapting such facilities and concepts to the needs of these growing populations ever going to be a realistic proposition?

The very nature of today’s urban developing world, largely constituted of the lowest income groups, has planners, policymakers, and business leaders scratching their heads about how we can achieve socio-economic inclusion in regions where wealth divides are so expressive. Throw in the acutely shocking nature of environmental damage that can result from weak housing production for these populations, and the question becomes even more confusing—and yet, unavoidable.

Within such informal homebuilding ecosystems and given the negligible income levels of these populations, proposing the same energy-saving processes and installations common in industrialized countries would be absurd. How, for example, could the exhaustive US Green Building´s Council’s LEED criteria for residential housing possibly transfer to Sub Saharan Africa or South East Asia, where many millions every year move into ramshackle structures—invariably without adequate access to water, sanitation, and electricity?

What we have here, therefore, is a problem of how to effectively shift the “luxury” reputation that currently governs environmentally focused housing paradigms to core global construction practice in the poorest parts of the planet.

To start, it is worth examining how the building sector in the developing world currently operates. Under heavy inflationary and other speculative pressures, mounting homes to a decent standard is cost-intensive and subject to a range of unpredictable risk factors. As a result, developers discard even relatively simple environmental installations—such as water storage and selective waste disposal—to minimize financial inputs and execute projects as profitably as possible. Models that do attempt to embrace environmental sustainability frequently conflict with antiquated building methods, culminating in elevated costs that developers pass on to consumers in the form of higher acquisition values—thus defeating any notions of end-user affordability.

We need to take a step back and examine how to embed more efficient material usage and streamlined processes into construction models. Without encouraging over-industrialization or abandonment of essential building principles, revitalizing how the industry undertakes core elements of construction has the potential to free up time, money, and labor to integrate pro-environmental methodologies and facilities.

We also need to create extra margins via improved productivity by overcoming management and logistical bottlenecks. We need to encourage sustainable sourcing, the effective use of materials, and recyclability throughout the production chain, ensuring that developers use the materials they bring to building sites and that no streams of waste are transferred to landfills.

Next, complementary to the achievement of the above objectives, the construction sector needs to create synergies that embrace untapped and local natural resources within regions where housing is most needed. Innovation concepts such as jugaad (a colloquial Hindi term that translates as “overcoming harsh constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources”) represent interesting reference points.

Some interesting organizations that are engaging in this area include BRAC (increasing access to a range of water, sanitation, and hygiene services); d.light (widening electricity access); Sunlabob (renewable energy and clean water solutions); SELCO (internal and external solar heating); Sulabh International (toilets linked with a biogas plants and effluent treatment systems), and Promigas (natural gas service connections). These innovations show that intricately detailed, expensive technologies are not actually necessary. The priorities are to understand how we incorporate such models into our construction planning while achieving efficient scalability and ensuring that costs remain low (to avoid compromising end-user affordability).

Other broader factors that we need to tackle include overcoming the cumbersome environmental laws and regulations that prevent many low-income housing strategies from coming to fruition, and dealing with internal inefficiencies and general reluctance among developers to innovatively engage their operations.

We have massive challenges ahead of us: We must radically raise housing quality standards without compromising financial accessibility, and we must construct housing in better locations while adopting environmental sustainability (in a sector where such practice currently stands at virtually zero).

Moving forward, we must establish workable benchmarks and incentivize constructors via low-interest finance options in line with environmental compliance criteria. We must also develop strong shared-interest R&D relationships to holistically and sustainably attend to real market needs.

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